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UK could be carbon neutral by 2050 but immediate action required

A joint report by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society presents an ambitious plan for how the UK can lead the way in deploying greenhouse gas removal (GGR) technologies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is the first time that a range of GGR technologies have been assessed for their real-world potential in being used together to meet climate goals in the UK over the next 30 years.

In 2017 the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering were asked by the UK Government to consider scientific and engineering views on greenhouse gas (GHG) removal. Concisely entitled “Greenhouse Gas Removal“, the report draws on a breadth of expertise including that of the Fellowships of the two academies to identify the range of available GHG removal methods, the factors that will affect their use and consider how they may be deployed together to meet climate targets, both in the UK and globally.

Climeworks commercial-scale Direct Air Capture (DAC) carbon capture plant installed on the roof of a waste recovery facility in Hinwil, Switzerland. The captured CO2 is piped to the greenhouses in the background (photo courtesy Julia Dunlop).

Climeworks commercial-scale Direct Air Capture (DAC) carbon capture plant installed on the roof of a waste recovery facility in Hinwil, Switzerland. The captured CO2 is piped to the greenhouses in the background (photo courtesy Julia Dunlop).

The report’s authors state that while the UK’s first priority must be to maintain efforts to rapidly cut GHG emissions, greenhouse gas removal (GGR) technologies have a role to play in counteracting emissions from aviation and agriculture, where the scope to completely reduce emissions is limited.

However, to meet climate targets significant action is essential, starting now. Bringing the UK to net-zero emissions in 2050 will require annual removal of an estimated 130 megatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), even with stringent reductions in emissions.

The report also considers the global picture and outlines a scenario in which a portfolio of GGR technologies can be implemented together to achieve carbon removal across the world by 2100 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Biological solutions like planting trees will become saturated by the end of the century and other GGR technologies will need to be developed and used in the longer term.

The technologies discussed in the report range from well-known and ready to deploy methods, such as forestation, to more speculative technologies like direct air capture (DAC), which aims to use chemical processes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Drax is to pilot Europe’s first bioenergy carbon capture storage project. (From left) Jason Shipstone, Head of R&D, Drax Group; Caspar Schoolderman, Director of Engineering, C-Capture Ltd; Andy Koss, CEO Drax Power; Prof Christopher Rayner, Technical Director, C-Capture Ltd; Carl Clayton, Research and Innovation Engineer, Drax Group (photo courtesy Drax).

Each technology is assessed on its readiness for deployment in the timescale required, the potential for scalability, costs, environmental and social impacts and how much of a ‘dent’ it can make in removing excess carbon to meet the targets.

Rapid GHG emission cuts and GGR deployment, now

According to Professor Gideon Henderson FRS, Professor of Earth Science at the University of Oxford and chair of the report working group, if the UK acts now on greenhouse gas removal, the country can reach national emissions targets and show how a major industrialised economy can play a leading role in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.

In this report we’ve identified the available GGR technologies, how they might be used together for maximum effect, and how their phased development and deployment could enable the urgent action required to avoid the devastating impact of climate change. We must absolutely continue to prioritise rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but we will also have to use these GGR methods to achieve international climate goals, and steward the planet for future generations, said Professor Henderson.

Professor Nilay Shah FREng, Director of the Centre for Process Systems Engineering at Imperial College London and member of the report working group, pointed out that no single technology alone can do enough to limit the effects of climate change and that action must be taken immediately.

The report highlights the portfolio of greenhouse gas removal technologies required in order to make meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement possible. However, delivery of these technologies at the necessary scale will present many challenges. Overcoming these will require a concerted effort from engineers, scientists, and governments worldwide. For the goal to remain in our sights action must be taken now, said Professor Shah.

For the UK to meet net-zero emissions by 2050

  • Ready to use GGR methods such as forestation, habitat restoration, soil carbon sequestration, and building with wood or carbonated waste could provide just over a quarter of the target to reach net zero emissions.
  • Biochar, enhanced terrestrial weathering in agricultural soils, direct air capture with carbon storage (DACCS), and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) could contribute to the rest of the 2050 target.

What is needed to be done to achieve net-zero emissions in the UK

  • Rapidly increase forestation to 5 percent of UK land, restore wetlands and salt marshes, and store more carbon in farmland
  • Establish an incentive or subsidy system to encourage farmers to use their land to store carbon. This could be part of the framework that replaces the Common Agricultural Policy after the UK leaves the EU.
  • Encourage changes in building practice to use wood and cement manufactured with carbonated waste.
  • Develop better ways of monitoring the effectiveness of GGR technologies.
  • Pursue research into the potential of longer-term GGR technologies such as enhanced weathering, biochar, BECCS, and DACCS.
  • Capitalise on the UK’s strengths in engineering and industry to establish the infrastructure required for the storage of CO2.

The report also calls for action in a number of key areas in order to meet the overall goals of the Paris Agreement using GGR technologies.

  • Continue and increase global efforts to reduce emissions of GHGs.
  • Implement a global portfolio of GGR technologies now to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
  • Build carbon capture and storage (CCS) infrastructure, essential to meeting the scale required for achieving climate goals.
  • Encourage investment in the development and piloting of GGR projects to assess their real-world potential and understand any environmental and social impacts.
  • Establish incentives, for example, carbon pricing, to pay for removal of CO2 and encourage business to use a wide portfolio of GGR technologies.
  • Establish a framework to govern the use of GGR technologies that address sustainability and engages the public.
  • Build GGR into regulatory frameworks and carbon trading systems.
  • Establish international science-based standards for monitoring the effectiveness of GGR technologies and their environmental impacts.

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